I have been blessed with many early memories, and one of them is the memory of my teacher when I was a tiny girl in Primary.
She was probably in her fifties or sixties, had curly salt-and-pepper hair, and was decidedly plump. She also had a cleft palate that had never been corrected, and a strong speech impediment. I loved her.
Every week as we came to class, she would hold each one of us in a hug. It was like sinking into a fluffy feather mattress, only warmer and even more peaceful. I don’t think a one of us doubted that she loved us, and that seeing us was the highlight of her week.
Eyes dancing, broadly smiling, she would tell us stories and teach us the lesson. It was as if we had all been drowning and that class was where we came up for air. I hung on her every word, even fascinated by the way she spoke, memorizing the sounds her impediment forced her to make. In some ways it was like having a grandmother with an accent from the old country—you had to learn it, but once you did, you flew right along with her, embracing every nuance because you knew the speaker loved you. And that unconditional acceptance made you give it right back.
I can still hear her voice, see the powdery soft skin of her face, and feel the tingle of excitement as she shared her faith. It mattered not one whit how old she was, that she had a physical challenge, a speech problem, weight issues, or wore the same maroon dress most weeks. So many of the things we worry about—and that some turn down callings over—weren’t even in the mix for her or for us.
That woman had the singular greatest trait a teacher needs: Love. And I still recall my sadness at “graduating” and having to move on. I never again had such a phenomenal teacher. Anywhere. But I feel blessed to have been in that Primary room for a tiny slice of my childhood, because that’s where I learned some of the most important lessons of my life:
First, that church is a wonderful, welcoming place– even magical, because someone is in there who doesn’t even know me, yet loves me with all her heart. Second, that Jesus is real and loves me. God is the father of us all and loves every one of us more than we can imagine. The Holy Ghost can whisper wonderful things to us. Third, that appearances make no difference; they are only of this world, not the next. And fourth, that people will listen if they know you love them. More than any seminar or manual I have studied, this woman taught me how to teach. Yes, we all learned the materials in that year’s manual. But these were the lessons between the lines, the truths I’ve kept in my heart to this day.
When we teach youth of any age, how wonderful would it be to convince every one of them that they’re loved? We have no idea what’s going on behind closed doors in their homes, the sadness they could be feeling, the betrayals of friendship they’ve already endured at their young ages, the doubts and criticism swirling about them.
That Sunday School, Primary, or Mutual class could be the only place where they hear a kind word or feel the warmth of genuine caring. The tiniest comment or bit of encouragement could be that indelible moment they’ll tuck away in their heart and treasure for as long as they live. Even longer. We spend a good deal of time preparing our lessons. If we want those messages to penetrate souls and change lives, we must convey them first and forever, with love.
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Hilton currently serves as a Relief Society President.